Guest Column

Better Protection of Myanmar Workers’ Rights Needed Amid COVID-19

By Benjamin Harkins 5 September 2020

To address the socioeconomic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Myanmar developed an ambitious COVID-19 Economic Response Plan (CERP), which provides immediate relief measures and sets out a path for financial recovery. As part of the actions outlined, the CERP seeks to ease the impact on workers through extending the benefits provided by the Social Security Board for its membership who are unable to work due to quarantine, illness and temporary factory closures. It also promises cash for work initiatives to build community infrastructure for those who have lost their jobs.

Although the initiatives outlined within the CERP to support workers during COVID-19 are beneficial, they fall considerably short of addressing the severity of their problems. In particular, there has been little agreement on more substantive action to provide social protection for those who have become unemployed. The Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population currently estimates that a quarter of a million workers have lost their jobs during the crisis, either in the formal sector or among migrants returning from abroad. However, considering that 83 percent of Myanmar’s labor force is informally employed, there is good reason to believe that the real scale of the job losses are much higher and more painful. Informal workers represent one of the lowest-income and least-protected segments of the work force and measures must be taken to provide them with more assistance—including through expanding social security coverage.

For Myanmar’s 4.25 million international migrants, the COVID-19 pandemic has substantially exacerbated deeply entrenched problems with labor exploitation. The Law Relating to Overseas Employment was adopted in 1999, largely before more formalized labor migration had begun to take place in Myanmar, and its regulations urgently need to be amended to better protect migrant workers’ rights. Even under normal circumstances, charging of illegal recruitment fees, contract substitution, wage theft and other abuses against migrants are common. With severe restrictions on mobility in place during COVID-19, working conditions for migrant workers have become even more precarious and abuses have proliferated. A Myanmar fisherman interviewed in Thailand said, “While we normally get paid every three months, our employer now won’t tell us when we will receive our wages. They are holding all of our IDs and personal documents. No one dares to go to the authorities for assistance.”

Fundamental labor rights for workers within Myanmar have also come under assault during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in relation to freedom of association. Prior to the outbreak, progress on establishing functional industrial relations and social dialogue was still nascent. Many of the advancements that had been made in recent years are now being rolled back by a substantial slowdown in the US$4.6-billion (6.1-trillion-kyat) garment sector during COVID-19. The resulting loss of livelihoods has disproportionately affected migrant women from poor rural areas due to the highly feminized nature of employment in the industry.

The declining fortunes of the garment sector have added fuel to an already highly combustible environment for labor relations. A significant number of factory owners have absconded to avoid paying severance to their laid-off workers and several factories have used the pandemic as an excuse for union busting. Despite their highly publicized commitments to corporate social responsibility, fast fashion brands have so far been a part of the problem rather than the solution to violations of workers’ rights. Unethical business practices such as canceling orders for goods during production, demanding discounts and not specifying when payments would be provided to their suppliers belie the massive profits these firms have earned in Myanmar during more prosperous times.

Trade unions have mounted a vigorous response to the abuses by organizing strikes at several garment factories in Yangon. These industrial actions demonstrate the critical importance of labor organizing in empowering workers to assert their rights, shine a light on abuses and advocate for longer-term industry reforms. However, they have also starkly revealed the limited space within which trade unions are allowed to operate in Myanmar. Workers must resort to strikes to assert their labor rights largely because the normal channels for negotiation with employers are nonexistent or dysfunctional. Improvements to the Labor Organization Law passed in 2012 are sorely needed as it currently limits the formation and registration of many unions, as well their ability to reach collective bargaining agreements.

Hard-won gains in establishing minimum wage protections for workers are also at stake during the COVID-19 pandemic. Myanmar introduced its first minimum wage requirements in 2015 and stipulated that a new rate will be set every two years. The last increase to the base wage of 4,800 kyats was made in May 2018 but the national tripartite minimum wage committee has not met to consider an increase during COVID-19. The delay takes money out of the pockets of low-income workers and ignores widespread concerns that the current minimum wage rate is far below a living wage in urban areas. Rapid assessments in some of Yangon’s most vulnerable communities suggest that many families have adopted negative coping strategies to deal with insufficient income during COVID-19, such as taking on unsustainable levels of debt. The financial pressure may drive more households into precarious and exploitative forms of work and some social service providers have reported an increase in gender-based violence.

During the outbreak of COVID-19, Myanmar has mounted a very effective response to protect the health of its population. Robust and collaborative efforts have so far prevented a large-scale public health emergency from occurring and have placed Myanmar in a strong position to recover quickly from the economic malaise that many countries around the world are experiencing. A similar level of commitment to protecting the rights of its workers is needed to ensure that Myanmar emerges from this challenging period with a more just and equitable society. Supported by Australia, Canada, the European Union, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States, the Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) is working closely with key stakeholders to realize this goal by expanding the protection of fundamental labor rights for migrants and other vulnerable workers. The path to achieving sustainable and inclusive economic growth in Myanmar, both during COVID-19 and beyond, must be firmly rooted in a labor market that provides opportunities for decent work and coverage by social protection to all of its people.

Benjamin Harkins is senior program manager for the LIFT Fund in Myanmar, where he established LIFT’s Decent Work and Labor Mobility program.

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